Digital Artist Linda Dement speaks to Paul Andrew about ISEA 2013, feminism, photography and the power of digital collaborations.
Linda is there an early memory of an artwork, artist, person, place or experience when you knew you needed to make art, to become an artist?
When I was four I was trying to cut out something from cardboard but the scissors I had were blunt kids’ scissors and wouldn’t do the job well enough. My father saw my frustrations and brought me a razor blade that he covered on one sharp edge with many layers of band aids. He showed me how to cut with it, stood back and let me proceed. For a four year old to be allowed to use a razor blade I knew was a very risky and unusual thing. It was from this I learned that art was worth taking a risk for, that it was worth doing properly and that I was up to the job.
Then when I was a bit older, probably about eight, my mother saw what I was painting with kids water based paints on buckling paper, went away and came back with her own much loved set of oil paints and a piece of board. This experience completely reinforced the razor blade episode for me. Art is worth sacrificing for. Art is worth taking risks for. Art is worth pushing ahead outside what is expected for your age.
Somehow though I didn’t quite understand that one could just decide to be an artist until I was in my late twenties.
I was fascinated to hear both you and digital artist Sarah Waterson talking about studying photography together as students in the 1980's - can you tell me a bit more about this time, and what studying darkroom photography mean't to you at the time?
I studied at City Art Institute in Sydney from 1986 to 1988 and majored in photography. Sarah Waterson was in a few of my photography classes. At that time classes were no more than ten students and ran for I think four hours. It was so valuable and substantial.
We would usually have some kind of group feedback session in a classroom then head off to the darkrooms to print. I studied with George Schwarz and Jonathon Delacour and honestly don’t know where I’d be today if not for them. Amazing technical skill, intense and wide ranging knowledge of the arts and daring open personalities. They were both. in different ways, very demanding and extremely supportive of whatever we as students wanted to pursue.
Sarah and I had a show called Fruits of the Flesh down at ArtHaus the student gallery. My photos were of naked girls and offal. Sarah’s had bondage elements with fruit. I was in some of her images – I seem to remember hanging from a rafter in her garage beside Kurt who had a pineapple hanging from his dick- wonderful work. Friends of mine came to the opening dressed in thinly sliced calves liver dresses. Someone complained but they let the show run.
Terrific, all this way before Lady Ga Ga. What was it that you adored most about photography as a medium?
I totally loved the strict technical precision of it. I ended up mostly working in the studio with medium or large format cameras and studio flash. I could concentrate on light meter readings and the beauty of expensive well engineered equipment, the maths of exposure and let the art take care of itself.
It was freeing to have the mind obsessively ticking away with the technicalities and the wildest art could slip through almost un-noticed.
Also I loved the darkroom.
I loved being in the dark printing. I could easily spend ten to sixteen hours in the dark making tiny adjustments in colour and tone that probably no one else could ever see. I once re-printed an entire show the day before it opened with a microscopic change to the amount of red. Only I and my lecturer at the time could tell the difference.
During the eighties was also a cultural moment when women were working prodigiously with photography in contemporary art - postmodernism afforded women a measure of/sense of agency with photography perhaps because it was a medium and an art historical language less entrenched, less codified by patriarchy than other art historical tendencies?
Regarding the numbers of women photographers at the time, I remember hearing that whenever the real power has gone out of an area, the women move in.
Also at that time there was some push for women to be priests and the same was said there. Religion was waning and so women were allowed a few positions. I wonder how that is going now that religion is popular again?
Photography is an interesting media for women given the much discussed position of the viewer - apparently encoded as male. The gaze. Who wrote all that theory back then? Laura Mulvey?
There was something so satisfying about working with precise machinery, with technical skill and with this position behind the camera constructing the world of the image.
And for me to do this and do it in order to produce work that was sexual, violent, fragmented, punk, disturbing -i.e the opposite of precise & technical- was so satisfying. Something to do with being extremely proficient in all these measurable ways but then pushing this fuck you out of control imagery through at the same time.
In turn during the nineties, perhaps for the same reason, the internet, the digital realm and new technologies presented opportunities even more enticing - almost completely unmapped cultural topography then (at least from an artist's perspective) and once again, a sort of unentrenched cultural terrain - is this something that you found challenging vivid , indeed vital and necessary at the time?
Yes, I felt that with computing and didn’t really feel it with photography. I remember often saying that it was important and urgent for those on the periphery of mainstream culture to put their stories, their presence, into digital culture while it was still forming. There was a window. The space was in ways unformed, unmarked and open. The window’s pretty much closed now and the space is thoroughly rutted and fenced.
Tell me about the proportion of women in the ISEA Catching Light exhibition currently at the Campbelltown Arts Centre?
Catching Light has five older artists paired with five younger artists. I am the only older woman and there are two younger women - Kelly Doley and Pia van Gelder. Kelly and I collaborated on the work entitled, 50BPM.
It’s a difficult thing. I saw that there were seven men and three women early on in the process and kind of felt an internal slump: Oh, of course. Oh well.
But the artists chosen are all fantastic and cover a good range of digital arts history. Really you couldn’t ask for better company – Steven, Tom, Troy and Wade. Awesome. The project devised by Michael D’Agostino and Megan Monte is a great idea and has been really successful I think, in terms of process and outcome.
The collaborations have been fascinating.
I honestly can’t say enough good things about the whole experience. The 7:3 thing niggled at me though, largely because in the early days of digital arts in Australia there was a predominance of very strong female artists. And, it was an internationally recognised fact.
Women from overseas actually came here to study because there were so many strong female new media artists. Cyberfeminism itself came from Adelaide’s VNS Matrix. It was born here. There was an extraordinary kind of groundswell uprising of strong, often angry, often sexual, new media art from women.
I felt that this needed to be acknowledged somehow in Catching Light because it is a show that references past Australian new media. It was fairly late in the day by the time I worked out I had to do something. It felt disproportionate and inaccurate without it.
All I had time for by that stage was to gather a list of names and set up an augmented reality around CAC. (You can view it on your iPhone or Android through the app Layar and search for Catching Light). Kelly suggested I have the list of names as a video in the gallery as well. I told Megan and Michael what I wanted to do and they were totally wholeheartedly supportive. Megan suggested the three screen installation.
I have always wanted to ask you why you worked with CD Rom in your early works Linda rather than internet-based practice?
(Laughs) Paul there was no internet to speak of when I started.
I remember being in some little uni room somewhere while working on Typhoid Mary and some boffins were transmitting one image to other boffins in the US.
It took about five minutes and there was clapping and cheering when it was received. Technology has changed blindingly quickly.
Even by the time I was onto my second screen based work, that kind of image and interaction simply wasn’t possible online. It was a struggle to get rich text working.
I also think it’s a mistake to get caught up in the delivery mechanism. CD ROM is a storage and delivery mechanism.
Also if I was to do an online work, now that that’s more viable, I would want to use the connectivity and information mash that online entails.
It’s all about connection; information and data and input. The three early interactive works are not at all about connection with the world of information. They are quite tightly controlled narrative character studies.
What I loved about being able to make interactive work is the ability to interweave different kinds of information - image, animation, video, stories, theory, medical info, audio. And to craft connections between them that might make sense to someone using the work in any possible direction. I love working with some weird shifting fragile structure of cross connections that reassemble as you go.
The complexity is wonderful.
The complexity is wonderful.
Tell me about how your collaboration with Kelly Doley came about?
Kelly and I had never met before being put together for this show. We met up in cafes and talked and found that we had feminism in common.
Sometimes I get quite tired and disappointed looking at the state of play for women today. I can’t believe the rise in popularity of misogynist religions, I can’t believe there are still abusive christians on the street outside the abortion clinics, I can’t believe that the statistics for rape and incest haven’t changed, let alone the statistics for income, promotions, positions of power etc etc. All that work. All that energy. All those battles apparently won that are now sliding back to horror.
Having said that though I know that there have been huge real changes, in legislation, in popular attitudes. I was on a train out west the other week and three young hyper masculine thugs sat opposite me. They were talking about how they would feel if one of their friends came out to them as gay. One said “He’d still be my friend.” The others all grunted agreement & that was it. Twenty years ago boys like that would have beaten the gay friend senseless and dumped his body in a ditch.
This is a generalisation, but I see such a difference in my male students. They are more likely to be easy and human and actually a pleasure to be around. In my first years as a teacher in this very technical field it was extremely difficult to be believed, to have male students take direction, seek advice, make mistakes. The need to prove themselves and their position as dominant male was grindingly boring and ever present. The improvement over just one generation is remarkable.
Anyway, I digress.
But this is the kind of thing I was talking about with Kelly, who is very interested in feminism and has an initiative going called JANIS which includes exhibitions and forums. One of which was a forum at Artspace called If Not Why Not which was :
“… an intergenerational selection of artists, curators and academics come together to talk about the misconceptions, meaning and relevance of feminism in contemporary art today.”
So the work evolved from this kind of discussion.
We wanted something uncontrollable, fluid, hysterical, uncontained. With the hanging bag in the work 50BPM there is a massive and once explosive presence, leaking its life blood out onto floor. Helen Reddy’s song is stretched and slow. The tiny screen flashes angry phrases of warning.
Kelly came up with the idea for the song and did the audio work. I came up with the phrases on the tiny screen and together we formed and constructed the leaking bag. 50BPM presents a worn down possibly dying presence. Will it sag, leak and die, will the too small warnings be heeded, will the once optimistic anthem wind down and stop?
We did actually take a few diversionary paths - we were looking at interactive algae, sensor activated lights and audio, fermenting liquids, rotting fruit. I still have two tanks of beautiful deep green algae growing.
We didn’t do the mentor / mentee thing. We just collaborated. Probably I learned more from Kelly than she from me anyway. She’s a truly impressive person.
Digital Artist Sarah Waterson made a lovely observation at the exhibition opening, that the explosives bag hanging on the bar in the installation 50BPM reminded her of the iconic cover art for Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch, was this intentional?
OMG it does too! No, I didn’t think of that at all, but I like it.
50BPM ( Detail )
PHOTOS (top): Untitled, 2013, Artist: Linda Dement - I loved seeing this three screen based work at ISEA 2013 in Campbelltown, a paean to cyberfeminism.
For more info:
For more info about film maker, film theorist Laura Mulvey on the male gaze:
For more info about film maker, film theorist Laura Mulvey on the male gaze: